What was school like for you growing up? Were you bored? Confused? Frustrated? I had a pretty easy time, but many of my classmates did not, even the ‘smart’ ones.
In high school I was on the speech team. One of my events was persuasive speaking. I chose one year to advocate for teachers to broaden their teaching styles to match a wider variety of learning styles. I used the Gregorc Mindstyle Delineator as an example of how styles can vary (mine is Abstract Random, go figure). It was an interesting thesis and I sincerely believed what I wrote and presented in those 8 minutes each weekend.
Thirty years later, I wonder how much I walk this talk of meeting people where they need me. Simply asking the question, raising my awareness, makes me better.
Parenting. It doesn’t matter how many parenting books you read or how well you think your parents raised you. General principles apply, of course. But every kid is unique, and we parents do better when we realize that the methods we use for anything on kid #1 won’t necessarily work with kid #2, #3, an onward. Flexibility is key to a happy and functional household, for getting out the door every morning without yelling.
Marriage: According to the Dr. John Gottman, about two-thirds of marital problems are perpetual, meaning they will never actually resolve. So how do couples stay together successfully? Among other things, they learn to accept one another and work around the hard stuff. At least partially, we have to soften our rigidities, learn to bend and sway, embrace the supple, intimate dance of commitment.
Teaching: Not all students learn best by watching. Not all learn best by doing. Or by hearing, mimicking, or competing. Luckily, medical education gives trainees multiple platforms on which to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to care for patients. For all its flaws, our profession actually does well here. I’m happy that I realized this in my own experience. When I precept students in clinic, they shadow, scribe, see patients alone or lead a joint encounter, so they can experience the work from different perspectives. I think this mutual versatility and adaptability makes us all better.
Patient Care: Over the years I have accumulated myriad articles and books to share with patients. But not everybody’s a reader like me. Not everybody wants to meditate or journal. Some people do better with a personal trainer, others in spin class. It’s my job to assess how each patient is most likely to succeed in health habit optimization, and present the most appropriate resources for consideration. Primary care definitely does not work with a one size fits all approach. So now I include audiobooks, podcasts, phone apps, and YouTube videos in my repertoire of medical information sharing. I am blunt when it’s needed, and also gentle and diplomatic. I can speak from the head and the heart, often both at the same time.
Speaking Engagements: Here is where my elasticity has grown the most in recent years. For the first decade of my career, I still used the expository presentation style I learned in high school. Thankfully in 2014, I watched Nancy Duarte’s TED talk on transformative oral presentations, and then read her book, Resonate, in 2015. Make the audience the hero, she says. Tell a story, contrast what is with what could be, paint the vision of the blissful future clearly. Engage people’s emotions and aspirations.
This is not easily done with Power Point decks full of words. But words are my medium! I had to add color, diagrams, cartoons, photographs. I started making my presentations more interactive, between myself and the audience, and between audience members themselves. Now I have people stand up and move their bodies. I may bring raisins to my next talk and do a mindful eating exercise. I need to learn how to embed music and videos into my slides.
What is the objective in all of these relationships? It’s connection. How do we best connect? We reach out. We extend ourselves to others—make ourselves relaxed, flexible, spring-like. That is how we gather people closer. It’s not formless or weak. A strong elastic maintains its integrity even under high tension. But it must be stretched often, or it becomes stiff, brittle, and ultimately ineffectual.